The Passing of the Old-Timers
The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals
By William Barrett
Publisher: Doubleday Anchor
Review Author: Michael Kerper
During the past few years, New York intellectuals have been in a confessional mood, turning out a veritable library of memoirs and autobiographies. No doubt this prodigious output is caused in large part by the aging of many New Yorkers who, with the onset of their retirement years, turn to their typewriters rather than to quiet Florida condominiums.
Barrett, perhaps best known for Irrational Man (his popular little book on existentialism), is now in his late sixties, and his The Truants offers a glimpse of the great intellectual squabbles of the postwar era. What makes his book different, and thus more intriguing, is his political detachment. As a result, his appraisal of his former colleagues and friends is, for the most part, devoid of the stinging acid that drips from the pages of other New York intellectual memoirs.
Anyone who reads the sometimes ponderous recollections of these brilliant New Yorkers must inevitably wonder whether all their debates really mattered. If the truth be admitted, people like Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Paul Goodman, Delmore Schwartz, Sidney Hook, and the other characters in Barrett’s book are known by fewer and fewer people. Even graduate students these days would be hard put to identify even one of them. Yet each of them was important. Their influence lives on, even if it now passes largely unnoticed. As Barrett notes, “Intellectuals are less disconnected from the social body than they like to imagine. As their attitudes shift, some cultural middlemen will always be around to transmit the tremors of change to society at large.” As Barrett demonstrates, this is particularly true in literature and politics, the two subjects that evoked so many passionate debates within the New York group.
In politics the group adhered (for the most part) to a curious ideology — Marxism that was also anti-Stalinist. Rahv, the coeditor of Partisan Review and the man whose ideas and career receive so much attention from Barrett, resolutely opposed Stalin, yet at the same time railed against capitalism. He insisted on calling himself a Marxist long after his own political interests and involvement had evaporated. But Rahv’s almost “transcendental” Marxism was hardly unique. Many shared it. “Our kind of Marxism,” Barrett admits, “was a luxury; it never had to sully itself by coming to power.” He goes on to write about “the purity of our dissent” which was preserved “by being detached from what we regarded as the wickedness of American capitalism.”
But all this highbrow political speculation had its effects, not the least being its nurturing of attitudes that contributed much to the so-called New Left of the 1960s. With their old anti-Stalinism gone because of Stalin’s death — though his system remained firmly entrenched — the anger of many New York intellectuals was turned against American society. Moreover, their penchant for political abstraction divorced from reality led to a serious danger. Barrett boldly writes: “As soon as you have replaced this concrete plurality by the abstraction of The People, you have homogenized it into a Mass — a plastic and passive dough to be kneaded at will by the Dictator. You have taken the first step toward Gulag.” And so it was that in the 1960s a good many intelligent people came to look the other way or even to defend the works of Stalin’s offspring. Barrett is one of those who didn’t fall into that terrible trap.
In a sense. The Truants is something of a dirge sung to memorialize a very special sector of American intellectual life now on the verge of extinction. Many of its leading figures are dead, men like Rahv, Schwartz, and Lionel Trilling. Others are rarely heard from now. And magazines like Partisan Review have little influence these days.
As the New York intellectuals die off, no one steps forward to pick up their traditions. Indeed there won’t be and can’t be any replacements. As Barrett points out, “This kind of intellectual is on the way out.” He cites “the rational organization of modern life” which leads to intense specialization, something totally alien to the autodidacts and Renaissance men of New York. Commenting on a recent “gathering of New York intellectuals,” Barrett says he was struck “that all the men present had their distinct, socially acknowledged, and fairly highly salaried position within society — a few within government.” Such modern-day specialists, with their credentials, are totally unlike men such as Rahv, who had no academic degrees and no real profession. None of the modern specialists would care to spend an evening arguing about Tolstoy or the relative merits of Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein. For better or worse, they lack the passion of the old-timers.
A tone of sadness pervades Barrett’s book. He entitles his prologue “A Mass for the Dead,” and he forever portrays people who seem to be hopelessly lost, severely alienated, and in search of some vague form of fulfillment. This leads to the question of God. Though the religious theme is very much secondary, it is there and deserves attention. For instance, Barrett calls the Sunday New York Times “a sacrament” of the New Yorkers. He writes of Rahv’s “own religion,” which was his Marxist “faith.” And he refers to a “canon of authors” acceptable to the New Yorkers.
Particularly poignant is Barrett’s account of Trilling’s funeral. It shows avowedly nonreligious people confronted with the terrible embarrassment of death, which inevitably calls forth religious symbols and language — and it shows, as Barrett says, that “a thoroughly secular attitude” is “crudely inadequate.”
Trilling, Jewish by birth, was a convinced rationalist and devotee of Freud. Yet he respected religion and had some inkling of the divine. Moreover, he was almost unique within the group in that he had a long, happy, and monogamous marriage. Faced with Trilling’s religious inclinations, his friends settled on a hybrid funeral service, featuring some classical music and a few Psalms read by a rabbi and a minister. Strangely, the unmistakable religious symbols so much resisted by secular intellectuals intruded upon Trilling’s world as his colleagues bade him farewell.
Barrett’s book, with all its melancholy, is a fine account of the New York intellectuals. His insights are especially sharp and he seems to be eminently fair. It will surely be followed, and perhaps even challenged, by other volumes from the New Yorkers who still haven’t set their memoirs to paper.
©1983 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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